When Representative Eric Cantor announced he was stepping down from the House Majority Leader position after losing to a primary opponent, he spoke of shared party values. "Truly,” he said, “what divides Republicans pales in comparison to what divides us as conservatives from the Left and their Democratic Party.”
That statement struck many of us as slightly odd, given the circumstances. But newly published research suggests it reflects a deep psychological bias of conservatives to perceive consensus within their own ranks.
In a series of studies, this mindset of mutual agreement remained firmly in place even when there was, in fact, no accord on a given issue. The researchers, led by New York University psychologist Chadly Stern, believe it reflects right-wingers’ “stronger motivation to foster a shared sense of reality” with like-minded others.
Stern and his colleagues, writing in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, argue this form of collective self-deception can both help and hinder conservatives from achieving their electoral goals.
"An exaggerated sense of consensus within one’s ranks could lead individuals to become overly confident that their group will achieve its goals."
The researchers describe three experiments. One of them featured 150 Americans recruited online, all of whom described themselves as active members of a political party.
After indicating their ideological stance, participants viewed a series of men’s faces and indicated how likely each was to be either (a) gay or straight, (b) born in November vs. December, or (c) prefer fruits to vegetables.
After making these apolitical judgments, they were asked “What percent of participants who share your political beliefs made similar judgments as you did?” Finally, they were asked a series of questions concerning their party’s chances in the upcoming 2012 elections.
On each of the questions regarding the men’s faces, there was no actual consensus among conservatives. Yet they “perceived more in-group consensus than did liberals,” the researchers report.
Conservatives also expressed a stronger desire for a sense of shared reality with their peers, responding positively to such questions as “How important is it that you see the world in a similar way as people who generally share your beliefs do?”
Finally, the researchers found a link between this perceived consensus and the belief their party would achieve its election goals. This result was confirmed in a follow-up study, which also found that people “who perceived their party as being more efficacious expressed stronger intentions to vote” in the upcoming election.
So, a perceived consensus among conservatives—which, according to a new Pew survey, doesn’t actually exist on many key issues—creates the belief that one’s party is effective. This, in turn, makes one want to go out and support the winning team. So, advantage, Republicans?
Only to a point, according to Stern and his colleagues. They note that the Tea Party was far better at forming a set of mutually agreed-upon goals than the left-leaning Operation Wall Street, and it has subsequently had more success in influencing public policy.
However, “an exaggerated sense of consensus within one’s ranks could lead individuals to become overly confident that their group will achieve its goals,” the researchers point out. That, they note, could explain why “many Republicans expressed shock and disbelief as Barack Obama recaptured the White House.”
“Furthermore,” they add, “liberals’ reluctance to assume consensus for their opinions could work to their advantage by increasing their investment in organization to ensure that fellow liberals are ‘on the same page.’”
So in the end, liberals’ greater comfort with diversity—including within their own ranks—may prove to be an asset after all. Self-deception has its advantages, but at some point, it bumps up against reality.